NTSB team investigating Phoenix chopper crash

A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) team led by board member Steve R Chealander is investigating the helicopter crash in Phoenix, Arizona, where two helicopters carrying TV news crews covering a police chase smashed into each other and plummeted to the ground, killing all four aboard on Friday 27 July. The panel has interviewed about 30 witnesses to the crash so far.

People who saw the crash said neither chopper appeared to be in distress before the two collided. Nobody described any odd sounds before the impact, nor did they see smoke or debris flying off the choppers for local TV stations KTVK (Channel 3) and KNXV (Channel 15).

Information gathered so far indicates that the Channel 3 helicopter was stationary and the Channel 15 helicopter came up either from under the Channel 3 helicopter, or at the same level. The NTSB team picked through the charred wreckage on Saturday. The debris was scattered about 100 yards from the crash site, with some landing on top of nearby buildings. The team plans to remove the wreckage and lay it out at another site in Phoenix.

Chealander said his crew would spend the next several days interviewing witnesses and reviewing maintenance records for the helicopters. Investigators also will check whether the pilots followed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, before finalising a preliminary report within the next five business days and a full report within nine months.

TV viewers did not see the accident because the cameras on both aircraft were pointed at the car chase on the ground. They momentarily saw images from one of the helicopters break up and begin to spin before the station abruptly switched to the studio. Coverage by other TV stations showed white smoke trailing the choppers as they dropped onto a downtown Phoenix park and exploded.

The shells of both helicopters lay upside down and squashed. The explosion had charred the surrounding grass and trees. Metal sheets from the choppers floated in a nearby pond. On board the KTVK helicopter were pilot Scott Bowerbank and photographer Jim Cox, while the KNXV chopper had reporter-pilot Craig Smith and photographer Rick Krolak. All four died in the accident, but no one on the ground was injured.

An FAA spokesman said the pilots of five TV news helicopters covering the chase, as well as a police chopper at the scene were not talking to air traffic controllers at the time of the crash. Air traffic controllers clear helicopters into an area where they can cover a chase, but the pilots themselves are responsible for keeping clear of other aircraft.